The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial discrimination, but now some politicians are illogically threatening a college president with legal action for refusing to practice racial discrimination. On December 3, Texas A&M University President Robert Gates, who headed the CIA during the first Bush administration, announced that the University will consider in its admissions decisions whether an applicant has overcome socioeconomic disadvantage and other obstacles, but will not take into account an applicant's race.
In response, U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston) and State Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) have threatened to file a lawsuit and request a federal civil rights investigation of Texas A&M. After a group of left-wing minority state legislators met with Gates on December 8 to implore him to reverse his decision, he nevertheless stood firm against using race. The legislators subsequently bashed Gates at a news conference in which they accused him of attempting to create an "all-white university" and vowed to pass in the next legislative session "specific performance measure criteria" for minority admissions," a euphemism for racial quotas.
In fact, Gates deserves credit for not joining the stampede of Texas colleges, including the University of Texas at Austin, that are restoring racial preferences in admissions following the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions in the University of Michigan cases. These decisions, while effectively overturning the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals' Hopwood decision that outlawed racial preferences in Texas, merely held that non-numerical racial preferences could be used for a limited time to achieve a "critical mass" of minority students. Furthermore, the Supreme Court specifically encouraged universities to explore reasonable race-neutral alternatives before adopting racial preferences.
Thus, Gates' new policy is entirely consistent with the Supreme Court's rulings. In the University of Michigan Law School case, the Law School defined "critical mass" in lower court proceedings as at least ten percent combined black and Hispanic students. Texas A&M currently exceeds this threshold, with 11 percent of its students being either black or Hispanic. While many wish this number were higher, it is unclear whether A&M can resort to racial preferences under the Michigan decisions because it has already achieved a "critical mass" using colorblind policies.
At the least, even affirmative action supporters should hold their collective legal horses while A&M experiments with a colorblind admissions policy combined with aggressive outreach. Gates' plan steps up recruiting efforts in predominantly minority areas, works to persuade admitted minority students to actually enroll, and provides $5,000-a-year scholarships to all first-generation college students whose families earn $40,000 a year or less. Additionally, several essay questions encourage applicants to discuss significant obstacles they have overcome, which could include poverty and racism.
As long as preferences for disadvantaged students of all colors are modest, they are defensible based on merit. An applicant from an impoverished background who attended a low-performing inner city high school and whose parents did not go to college, but nevertheless approach A&M's average standardized test score, may have enough untapped potential to justify his admission and handle the coursework.
Since blacks and Hispanics are unfortunately more likely than whites to be disadvantaged, they will surely benefit disproportionately from the new admissions policy. Indeed, the only minorities who will not receive a preference are those from middle to upper class families who have not overcome significant obstacles. Therefore, A&M avoids the unfairness of race-based affirmative action through which a child of a wealthy minority family, such as Rev. Jesse Jackson's children who attended the same elite private school as Chelsea Clinton, would be preferred over a disadvantaged white or Asian applicant.
To be sure, there are a few pitfalls in Gates' policy. Admissions officers will need to carefully screen applications and conduct interviews where necessary to ensure students are not exaggerating the extent to which they are disadvantaged. Secondly, to further engender public trust that race is not being used, Gates should order the race of applicants redacted from admissions files while they are being evaluated.
Finally, Gates should adopt the same policy of colorblind evaluation coupled with aggressive outreach in A&M's faculty hiring. An October 13, 2003 memorandum sent by Provost David Prior to all engineering faculty demands that "one-third of new hires" be women or racial minorities. Such quotas are clearly unconstitutional under the Michigan decisions. Moreover, given the scarcity of women and minorities in engineering graduate programs, enormous racial and gender preferences would undoubtedly be necessary to reach this arbitrary target.
Ultimately, expanding the pool of qualified minority applicants is the long-term solution for increasing minority enrollment at all levels of higher education while still maintaining excellence. The Texas Legislature can fully unlock the gates of opportunity by improving the K-12 educational options available to poor and minority children in the upcoming special session on school finance. By adopting reforms such as school choice and merit-based teacher and administrator pay, we can narrow the racial gap in educational achievement instead of merely glossing over it with racial preferences. Let's follow Dr. Gates' lead and work to undo the effects of past racial discrimination through more opportunity, not more discrimination.